TORNILLO, Texas (AP) - Construction workers, cranes and front-loaders have rolled into a long-empty site on the southern side of the Rio Grande River, as Mexico starts work on its part of a border bridge project between West Texas and the state of Chihuahua.
Construction of the Tornillo bridge and port of entry, aimed at relieving congested cargo traffic lanes between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a major manufacturing center, started on the U.S. side eighteen months ago. The U.S. portion of the 117-acre project is expected to cost $96 million.
But until recently, the only movement across the river was from farm tractors plowing fields, Fernie Hernandez, an El Paso County project engineer said Thursday.
Mexican officials said their half of the bridge will be ready by mid-summer, but inspection areas and a road to connect the area to the highway will still have to be added for the project to be fully operational.
"Of course we're happy that they've started. We look forward to working together with Mexico to complete the project," Ernesto Carrizal, El Paso County's public works director, said.
The new port of entry is set to replace a two-lane bridge and customs and immigration offices at the small border crossing of Fabens, about half a mile downstream.
When the project was announced in July 2011, the governor of Chihuahua, Cesar Duarte, announced that crews would start working in two months. But by mid-2013, no money had been allocated for the project, and there was no timetable for completion.
The U.S. side of the project is almost finished. The bridge reaches halfway across the river, and crews are finishing the customs and immigration inspection areas of what will become the largest-area port of entry in the U.S.
A spokeswoman for the General Services Administration said the inspection areas on the U.S. side will be open for automobiles in the spring and be ready for commercial traffic in the summer.
Traffic will be routed through the existing two-lane bridge to the new facility, likely beginning in April, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Roger Maier. Commercial traffic, however, will have to wait for the new bridge and facilities to be completed because the Fabens crossing does not support heavy vehicles.
Cruz Loera, a spokesman for the Communications and Transportation Department in Chihuahua City, Mexico, said officials expect the bridge will be finished in six months. But he gave no timetable for the completion of the new highway or inspection areas.
Hernandez, the El Paso project engineer, said county officials are expecting to meet soon with their counterparts in Mexico to coordinate the next steps of the project, including connecting the two sides of the bridge.
Hernandez said the timetable Mexican officials had offered seemed "optimistic."
"I think it will be about a year," he said.
Once complete, the port of entry will serve the same function as the five other border crossings near Ciudad Juarez. Those crossings currently process more than 9.2 million cars, nearly 800,000 trucks and 6 million pedestrians every year.
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